School Climate & Safety

Concern Turns to Preschool Facilities

By Linda Jacobson — January 16, 2002 11 min read
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With no playground of its own, the Tenderloin Childcare Center sometimes has its 36 preschoolers walk past boarded-up buildings and homeless men sleeping in doorways to reach a subway station, where the youngsters catch a ride to a city playground.

Traveling back and forth from the playground to the child-care center—located on the first floor of a brick apartment building that used to be a YMCA hotel— is not something the children or the teachers look forward to. But there is no alternative.

“It can be one of the most challenging parts of the day,” Graham Dobson, the administrative coordinator of the center, said of the trek.

The lack of a playground is just one of the many facility needs that this center, and others like it around the country, have to go without. And the potential dangers and depressing physical characteristics of many such centers have some early-childhood policymakers saying it’s time to start focusing more attention on improving the quality of the nation’s child-care and preschool facilities.

The Tenderloin Childcare Center, for instance, is housed in the former YMCA hotel’s ballroom on the building’s first floor. Once an ornate hall with high ceilings, it’s now just a large room with peeling paint that has been turned into three makeshift classrooms like cubicles in an office.

The old stage in the ballroom has children’s climbing structures and soft mats behind a floor-to-ceiling safety net, which keeps the youngsters from falling off the stage. In the large room, voices echo across the open space, and children playing loudly in one area can drown out the voices of teachers trying to talk or read books to other children.

“We have to juggle the space around a huge amount,” Mr. Dobson said as he tried to talk over the sound of small toilets flushing outside the cluttered office he shares with another director.

‘An Invisible Issue’

The condition of facilities for preschool- age children rarely receives the same emphasis from advocacy organizations as the call for qualified and well-compensated early-childhood teachers, said Cheryl D. Hayes, the executive director of the Finance Project. The Washington- based policy-research and technical-assistance organization focuses on services for children and families.

“It’s a little bit of an invisible issue,” Ms. Hayes said.

Efforts are growing, however, to bring not only attention to the issue, but new financing to help programs find higher-quality facilities or upgrade their current buildings and classrooms.

For example, the Tenderloin center, which serves poor children, some of whom are from homeless families, was a prime candidate for help from the Child Care Facilities Fund, a nonprofit lender based in Oakland, Calif. The fund works with the San Francisco mayor’s office and private donors to improve and expand early-childhood-education facilities in that city.

Early this year, the center will move to a fully renovated site a few blocks away that has two floors of classrooms, office space, a staff meeting room, a gathering room for parents—and, finally, an outdoor playground.

It’s a step other directors of early-childhood facilities would like to take, but can’t because of budget constraints.

In many centers, teachers and classroom assistants have to walk children to other parts of the building to use the restroom because no such facilities are nearby. That is frustrating for teachers, especially those in understaffed centers, where it is difficult to take one child to the restroom while also monitoring the other youngsters.

And preschool teachers rarely have break rooms, where they can unwind and compare notes, or adequate storage space, which means that supplies are often scattered all over the place.

“You need at least a healthy and safe space, if not stimulating and developmentally appropriate,” said September Jarrett, the director of the Child Care Facilities Fund.

Beyond those basics, some experts say better facilities can significantly improve the attitudes of early-childhood educators toward their work and toward the children they teach.

“I think there is growing evidence that facilities are more important than were previously thought,” said Carl Sussman, who runs a Boston-based community-development consulting group. He is a founding member of the National Children’s Facilities Network, an organization working to improve early- childhood facilities throughout the country.

Finding the Money

The San Francisco city government, which already had a history of providing financing for child-care facilities, approached the Low Income Housing Fund, a national financial institution based in San Francisco that focuses on community development, about operating such a program specifically for such facilities.

With what Ms. Jarrett now describes as a “layered cake” approach, the Child Care Facilities Fund pieces together a variety of different sources of public and private money to pay for anything from heating repairs to brand- new buildings.

In a pioneering move, the city secured its primary source of funding for major child-care construction and renovation projects from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The money is loaned to child-care providers, who have to repay 20 percent of the debt over 10 years. The other 80 percent is paid for by San Francisco’s department of human services.

About $8.6 million in what is known as Section 108 funding—federal dollars that can be used for community development projects—is being used to develop child-care space that will eventually serve almost 600 more children, according to Ms. Jarrett.

San Francisco, where real estate costs are among the highest in the United States, is also among the most unlikely places for a wave of child-care construction to be taking place.

In fact, shortly after the fund was created, real estate costs in the city “went through the roof,” Ms. Jarrett said. Even churches that had been renting space to child-care providers for years were saying they could make more money by leasing the space to someone else or developing it as something other than a child-care center.

Many of the new facilities are now part of larger subsidized-housing developments throughout the city, such as the new Heritage Homes community in the Visitacion Valley, which is the southernmost part of the city and county. When complete, the development, which includes townhouses for low-income families, will also have a new center for 45 children attached to a senior housing facility.

“If you’re going to build low-income housing, you’ve got to have a child-care angle,” Ms. Jarrett said.

Providers in need of smaller improvements are not left out. The facilities fund also provides smaller grants of up to $20,000 for needs such as playground improvements or emergency equipment purchases.

One such provider is Cruz Fernandez, who runs a home-based Montessori program on the first floor of her house in the Oceanview neighborhood here. She opened her business in 1999, using borrowed materials. A $4,500 grant from the facilities fund has allowed her to buy new child-size furniture and the expensive, durable materials that are an essential part of a Montessori education.

“When I first heard about [the grants], I couldn’t believe it,” Ms. Fernandez said. And, she added, the children are proud of the new equipment. “They take care of it,” she said.

Beyond San Francisco

Other places around the country also have come up with different ways of paying for early-childhood facilities.

The facilities fund in the San Francisco area was modeled after work done by the Illinois Facilities Fund, a community-development financial institution in Chicago that began making real estate loans to nonprofit organizations, including child-care centers, about 12 years ago.

It wasn’t until 2000, however, that Chicago officials agreed to put a significant amount of money—$25 million—into building child-care facilities to serve children from low-income families. That, combined with a $25 million match being raised by the fund, has helped pay for 16 building projects.

Like the Child Care Facilities Fund used in San Francisco, the Illinois fund also has smaller “loan products” for providers who need to make minor improvements.

Back east in Connecticut, school readiness legislation passed in 1997 fostered a much greater demand for classroom space. But unlike other states, Connecticut is financing preschool construction in much the same way that school districts build schools—by issuing 30-year revenue bonds. That approach has generated more than $40 million for the construction of 19 new facilities in the state’s 21 “priority,” or high-need, districts.

The state also appropriated $2.5 million to pay 80 percent of the interest on the bonds. Providers were responsible for 20 percent. That funding has now been exhausted, and supporters are hoping the legislature will renew the program.

On the other hand, in New Jersey—where the state supreme court in 1998 ordered the state education department to provide early-childhood programs in 30 needy districts—advocates for early-childhood education say the state has been a stumbling block rather than a supporter on facilities issues.

The poor condition of facilities in those districts has become a key part of the debate over how to improve the quality of preschool facilities across the state.

“There is a major problem with the amount of facilities and the quality of these facilities,” said Joan M. Ponessa, the director of research at the Education Law Center in Newark, which represents all the children in the 30 districts that were part of the state supreme court ruling.

While funding for school construction, including preschool facilities, has been passed by the New Jersey legislature, districts have not been given permission from the state to build permanent buildings for early-childhood programs. Instead, the state ordered districts to use trailers to house the programs. But many of the urban schools, Ms. Ponessa said, don’t have space for trailers.

As a result, she said, some programs “are in parking lots,” and “some are on school grounds, taking up playground space.”

Policymakers Interested

The quality of child-care facilities is an issue that is beginning to attract attention from policymakers at the federal level, too. Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services awarded $2.5 million to 10 different organizations around the country— from Alaska to Maryland—that will provide technical assistance to providers to help them renovate or build child-care facilities.

But Sens. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., and Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, would like the federal government to do much more. Last year, they introduced a bill that would provide $250 million over five years to improve and build child-care facilities. The proposed Childcare Facilities Financing Act would be targeted toward low-income areas.

The bill did not move out of committee last year, though, and Ms. Jarrett acknowledged that even though many policymakers agree that more public money is needed to improve child-care programs, it’s hard to predict when money might be available.

Many of those concerned with improving facilities also would like to see more included on the issue as part of the accreditation process for early-childhood programs.

But Alan Simpson, a spokesman for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a Washington-based organization that accredits early-childhood programs, said that while the association “might like more programs to be in facilities that were designed for that purpose, we’re not in a position to demand it.”

Moreover, because local building codes vary tremendously, it would be hard for the NAEYC or other organizations to write one set of facility standards for the whole country, said Trinita Logue, the president of the Illinois Facilities Fund.

‘Out of the Basement’

Research on how facilities affect what happens in early- childhood classrooms is almost nonexistent.

A landmark 1995 study by researchers from four universities, known as the “Cost, Quality, and Outcomes” study, found, however, that many classrooms—especially those for infants and toddlers—did not meet basic sanitary requirements and were even dangerous to children.

And child-care experts emphasize that the physical features of a facility can have an effect on how the teachers do their work.

“We really believe that if you respect the adult, that trickles down to the children,” Ms. Logue said.

A recent example to support her belief comes from the School for Young Children, a laboratory preschool at St. Joseph College in West Hartford, Conn.

When students in a child-study course observed youngsters at play at the school, they found that the adults in the school, which was in the basement of a college building, were interacting with the children during only about 3 percent of the observations.

While that figure was comparable to earlier research on adult involvement in play, the college students and their faculty adviser, Carlota Schechter, were still disturbed by the results. So they observed the children again. But this time, the program was in a new facility, an old elementary school that was renovated to serve the needs of young children. This time, the percentage of observations in which teachers were interacting with children during playtime jumped to 22 percent.

Astounded by the increase, Ms. Schechter and the director of the program met with the teachers, who attributed the difference to their move to the new site. In the old facility, the children’s spots for storing their personal items, the restrooms and sinks, and the phones were all down the hall, which forced the teachers to leave the room frequently.

“In the new space, teachers do not need to leave the room to monitor these activities, and thus there is much more time for teachers to be interacting with children in the classroom,” Ms. Schechter wrote in a proposal for a similar study that is now being conducted at a preschool in Hartford.

The teachers also noted that because the rooms in the new facility were larger, the children had more room to play—and, as a result, there seemed to be fewer disputes between children than there were in the other location.

“The feeling of coming out of the basement—literally out of the basement—raises teacher morale so much,” Ms. Schechter said.

A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2002 edition of Education Week as Concern Turns to Preschool Facilities


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